Editor accuses Arafat of coercion

Middle East peace: Monitors find bias before the Palestinian elections as negotiators on Golan Heights seek a breakthrough
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A Palestinian editor held for six days for refusing to make room on his front page for a laudatory piece on the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, yesterday accused Palestinian leaders of intimidating the Palestinian press and making a mockery of the legislative elections on 20 January.

Maher Alami, executive editor of Al Quds, the biggest-selling Arabic daily in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was summoned from his Jerusalem home last Monday for relegating a story praising Mr Arafat's relations with the Christian churches to page eight. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theodoros, had compared the PLO chairman to the seventh- century Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem for Islam but allowed Christians and Jews to keep their holy places. Mr Arafat ordered that the story be given maximum exposure.

Mr Alami has worked in the Palestinian media for 27 years. He explained yesterday that there had been no room for the story on the 24 December front page. About 80 per cent of the page was filled with election advertisements. The other 20 per cent was devoted to pictures and reports of Mr Arafat's triumphant arrival and speech in Bethlehem, two days after the Israeli withdrawal, and to Christmas celebrations there.

Before setting him free on Saturday, Mr Arafat called Mr Alami to his office in Ramallah and delivered a personal reprimand. At home yesterday, the journalist said he had been held in a detention camp in Jericho, but had not been ill-treated.

"My arrest shows that we do not have a free press," said Mr Alami. "We have a press which is afraid of the authorities. The Palestinian papers, including Al Quds, did not dare to publish my story. They did not even report my release."

He saw the episode as an ominous sign for Palestinian human rights. "Democracy is a matter of practice, not slogans," he insisted. "The timing, on the eve of elections, was very bad. We have to have a real free press if we are going to promote democratic politics."

Mr Arafat's dictatorial ways also came under attack at the weekend from the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, which has a team of 15 monitoring the Palestinian elections. They reported "a very strong imbalance in the access to Palestinian public radio and television between different candidates and parties".

Between 15 and 25 December, Mr Arafat's Fatah was the only party to receive significant television coverage. The monitors logged one hour 11 minutes 35 seconds for Fatah to a mere 17 seconds for the (ex-Communist) Palestine People's Party, the only other group to be covered. The Voice of Palestine radio was a little more open, granting 20 independent candidates a total of two hours 15 minutes 49 seconds.

Mr Arafat's candidacy enjoyed one hour four minutes of attention on public radio and television. His only challenger for president, Samiha Khalil, had none. At the same time, Mr Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority received nine hours 20 minutes on television. The written press gave 86.3 per cent of its coverage to Mr Arafat and 13.6 per cent to Mrs Khalil.